Golf Club R&D

In Part 1 of our insider’s look into R&D in modern club design, we broke out the three tiers of golf club manufacturers and explained some basic R&D challenges that apply to any company looking to design golf clubs. Here in Part 2, I’ll talk about the top two tiers of golf club manufacturers: the major OEMs and the second tier “identity” companies.

RECAP: The Three Tiers

First Tier: The truth is there are only just more than a handful of Golf CLUB companies with truly capable and sufficiently large staffs of R&D personnel to excel in product development (ball companies are a different question entirely) – these are the major OEMs.

Second Tier: Following these major OEMs are smaller golf companies with R&D on a diminished scale. These are frequently “identity” brands that are product segment focused (hybrid clubs, wedges), having perhaps 5 to 30 R&D personnel on staff.

Third Tier: These are niche custom builders and “garage tinkerers” with NO real R&D – likely just one idea that is the focus of their business.

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Do not be misled – you generally cannot “see” the R&D at the point of sale. All the clubs have neat graphics and look cool on the floor of the golf shop – and they will all hit the ball – but there are just not equal amounts of “gray matter” behind them or equivalent understandings of our game and golf club design. Ergo, they absolutely will NOT perform the same for you.

And many in the media know little more about golf club design than many tech-savvy golf geeks – they just regurgitate what they are told by the OEM’s product people and call it a day. They are writers, not golf club “gear heads”.

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The long overdue truth that the golfer-consumer is finally beginning to learn is that there is a point where the goodness of golf club design begins to matter to your score – i.e. a point with every putt where the performance superiority of a high MOI mallet putter design still gets the ball in the hole (despite the human error introduced), while the same putt and human error with a CNC milled blade style design becomes a miss. A point where a better driver design stays in the edge of the fairway instead of getting into the rough!  Add ONE to your score at the end of the day in each case!

DESIGN MATTERS MORE THAN YOU THINK!  But you just do not see the design working to keep that drive in the fairway or that putt falling in the side of the hole.

Case Study:  

YOU – Shopping for a New Set of Irons

The new 2016 irons are out, and you have convinced yourself that you need a new set of irons – maybe you already got all the birdies out of your old ones.

So, you are looking irons from Brands X, Y, and Z. Both X and Y have “stars” and “medals” from the golf media, and Brand Z is a “value-priced” offering from one of the big golf stores. The X clubs are from a top 5 brand, and the Y clubs are from a second tier “identity” company known for something other than irons, but they seem okay.

All three look good and even hit the ball pretty good into the net in the golf shop. But consider this – the X driver probably have tens of thousands of man-hours of R&D and technology development behind them, while the Y irons may be backed by only hundreds of hours of development (or less). Meanwhile, the Z irons is really just “dumbed-down” copies of someone else’s design with different graphics and finish – developed during one afternoon in a CAD file and probably constructed with lower quality materials.

case-study

My advice to you on choosing golf equipment – buy your clubs from the larger OEM tier whenever you can, and focus mostly on the identity products from the second tier. You can be relatively certain you are getting good design technologies in both cases, and you are not wasting your money.

You should really make your final decision based upon how serious you are about your game, because in the absence of any quantitative data (which I hope the market will begin to give us soon), I would always recommend the Brand X configured with the right shaft, because the better R&D from Brand X will time and again matter to your score.  And do not take my advice about the shaft part lightly – it matters greatly.

Leave Brand Z for the guys who only play twice a year. If you have budget constraints, look for a close-out set of an excellent last year’s model from one of the larger OEMs or a well-cared-for used set.

So how do they (the weaker R&D groups and the “garage tinkers”) get away with this incompetence?

The really good news for these guys has always been that 95% of the buying public lacks the skill or knowledge necessary to spot a poor performing design or defective club in usage – or for that matter, they are unable to spot BETTER R&D.

 Even worse, no one is measuring golf club performance objectively and reporting it to the consumer.

So, Where Do You Find BETTER R&D?

It Fundamentally Begins with the Right People. Few contemporary golf club designers / R&D guys (I am not saying none, but I am serious about the real number being few) understand both golf club design AND the disciplines of Applied Research – control and experimental groups, sample sizes, statistical inferences, cause and effect relationships, bias, single blind and double blind studies, “halo” effect, test design and controls, single variable studies and multi-variant studies, to name a few. These Applied Research things are learned in graduate school after getting the BS degree in engineering school, and they are the essential understandings required for doing REAL R&D.

The guys with these proper credentials are almost exclusively found in the R&D groups of the most capable OEMs. Fewer still, though, are the number of these capable golf club design guys with the advanced degrees and the understanding of basic golf club design, who can also hit the ball well enough to evaluate the goodness of their own work or more importantly understand the nuanced feedback they hear from highly skilled players. These guys are surely no worse than honest single digit handicappers. I would number these guys at less than a dozen or so during my 30+ year career in golf club R&D and design.

marty-jertson

Good player skills are also essential within the group of R&D personnel for more nuanced development, but caution is necessary as skilled player employees can skew the results of otherwise good testing with “halo” effect, “bias”, and “group think” results. Alternatively, close relationships must be fostered with highly skilled players and test panelists outside the company, but they too must be low handicap players.

Size Does Matter

The depth and breadth of the R&D effort is often a function of the size and strength of the OEM in the marketplace (and its focus or brand identity).

Generally, bigger will produce better. 

But a relatively small and capable R&D group at an “identity” brand can do some really excellent work if their efforts stay focused on a single product category and they “dance with the one that brung ‘em”.

And then there are the little niche guys and garage tinkerers who generally know very little about what they are doing and have NO R&D capabilities whatsoever. They are generally about customization and fitting stories focused on one product.

The larger OEMs are to some extent ceding the equipment space for the short game to the niche companies and garage tinkerers for putters and wedges, while they concentrate on drivers and irons – where the money is.

Most larger OEM R&D groups are preoccupied with driver development (for good reasons). The driver is the most expensive single club and the one where performance improvement is most visible to the consumer, and it is the “lead dog” for turning the consumer into a “brand conscious” player. “Longer” is a simple marketing message to sell, and much of what is learned in driver R&D can be transferred to development of other clubs.

Inside Bigger OEM R&D

Perspective and Design Development Philosophies will establish the direction and the scope of new product development. (Read more on Philosophy in my Overview Article on R&D.)

Where we had become accustomed to annual product introductions for many years, we are now seeing excessive rates of innovation from some larger OEMs – too fast with too little differentiation or significance. This is contrary to the best practices for growing any other kind of business and ignores the very real seasonality issues of golf. It ultimately compromises brand integrity with the consumer and complicates the OEM-retailer’s business relationship immensely. Brand integrity of course suffers, and this excessive innovation is also anathema to enhancing product integrity. Simply put, we need a “cease fire” of sorts on excessive product introduction. (You guys know who you are.)

But not all R&D groups are capable of rapid innovation, so this is a competitive advantage the larger OEMs will always want to exploit.

There are R&D DESIGN problems and challenges for each new product that “pushes the envelope”. And new designs will always beget new manufacturing and marketing challenges.

Given the proximity of most of these major OEMs to one another (many in Carlsbad, CA), and the reality of shared suppliers, there is great likelihood that some level of industrial espionage is occurring in OEM golf everyday.

This is also the 21st century, so you might expect that computers are becoming an important part of golf club design. BUT, (big BUT here), the old “garbage in, garbage out” axiom associated with computer modeling for golf club design optimizations leaves us with considerable challenges regarding most computer modeling so far. We R&D guys honestly need to know much more about golf club design and get it into the computers before we can fully exploit the benefits of simulations. Some materials deformation simulations are good, though, for researching spring effect, and even acoustics engineering is becoming commonplace in some of the larger OEM R&D groups.

The Second Tier “Identity” Companies

The product identity companies in the second tier are very good at perhaps one product category. They may be “hybrid” companies or “forged irons” or “wedge” companies, but they generally have a strong focus and brand identity in the marketplace.

The temptation to grow through diversification is huge for companies in this dangerous middle. Most will have stockholders and balance sheets like any company, and a passion to prove their merit by expanding outside their one successful product category… so they do.

But diversification beyond their successful origins is a very dangerous double-edged sword of larger opportunity or a path to product mediocrity or even grand failure. It requires access to very large capital investment to make the leap to a full product company and compete with the product development and marketing machines of the larger OEMs. The expenses for media costs and Pro Tours promotions alone at that level are huge.

Success in this “second tier” is very challenging. Management has to be nearly perfect, and there is little room for mistakes in any part of the organization.

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What’s Left for the Smaller Companies?

The lion’s share of the golf equipment business happens in these two top tiers of OEMs, but their common sense prioritization of R&D efforts toward the more visible and profitable product categories of irons and woods leaves the short game products category with far less technology and fewer marketing dollars being spent – and therefore vulnerable to insurgents of many types.

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This tertiary priority for short game products development opens the door to the creation of many smaller niche producers for wedges and putters.  A few of these small companies are good at what they do, but they generally have NO capital for real R&D and exist based on one supposedly good idea . . . or maybe NOT!

We’ll talk next about what is really happening in this third tier next – the “niche” companies and “garage tinkerers”.